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L'Oncle Jack in L'Hospitalet
'Americana' in Catalunya is not a new phenomenon. As you wander through the city centre, it’s impossible to avoid the Subway, Starbucks and KFC franchises on what seems to be every other corner. Just when you start to think that it’s Invasion of the Body-Snatching Fast-Food Restaurants, there are a few companies in and around Barcelona that are anything but just another imported burger joint. These companies and organisations are an imported slice of US culture and, sometimes, American kitsch, thriving in the middle of Catalunya. Think Blues, BBQ, Fifties’ diners, Tennessee whiskey and Campbell’s Soup. And the most intriguing part is that these companies are almost all founded and run by Spanish people, not by US residents here.
So, what is the appeal of iconic Americana to the Barcelona population? Are these places upgraded tourist traps posing as a trend or do they represent something more profound? Jaume Ramon Espignol, the founder of Catalunya’s only Jack Daniels museum, emphatically agrees with the latter option.
L’Oncle Jack is a Jack Daniels museum, bar and live music venue that has been around for over 15 years. In 1996, Jaume and his wife Dolors decided to open a bar with the intent of, says Espignol, “creating an atmosphere that is 100 percent Tennessee in Catalunya”. A place where people can come to hear American music and appreciate “not just the whiskey, but the attitude” that is Jack Daniels. The bar is a constantly evolving private collection of American memorabilia, an ole Southern-style honky tonk located over in L’Hospitalet, near the end of the red metro line. They have shelves lined with limited edition bottles brought over by hand from the whiskey distillery just outside Nashville and authentic 19th-century ‘WANTED’ posters featuring portraits of American outlaws. Maybe you’d expect to find a few homesick expats hanging out at the bar, but the Espignols say that almost all of their clientele are locals and that the bar is not much of a tourist attraction at all.
Espignol reminisces about his trip along Route 66, where he saw “so many parts of America, and heard so many stories that fascinated me. That visit convinced me that I needed to bring something back so I could share it with people from here, and the response has been wonderful. Most of my clients are people from the local neighbourhood who have a passion for these aspects of American culture, almost as much as I do! We do get the occasional traveller or collector, but this is a place for the locals.”
L’Oncle Jack has been actively participating in Barcelona’s live music scene for the past seven years. It showcases American or American-style musicians in front of local audiences both at the bar and at various festivals, and encourage collaborations and co-bills with Catalan singer-songwriters.
If cowboy-esque silver belt buckles are not enough to convince you that there is an audience for this kind of thing in Barcelona, plan your next lunch date at one of the Peggy Sue’s diners in the city, such as the one on Balmes. Warning: The decor alone is enough to make you do a double-take. The white and blue vinyl booths, jukebox and pink walls make the restaurant look like a piece of the set from Grease, rather than a place located just two streets over from the famous examples of Modernista architecture that pepper Passeig de Gràcia.
Peggy Sue’s started in 2007 in Madrid, but, according to the founder and owner José Muñiz, they first spent a year in planning; this meant visiting the US to try to make sure that the experience was authentic, handcrafted and personal for every customer. The inspiration for a self-proclaimed “100 percent Spanish company” to open a 100 percent old-school Fifties’ diner was a combination of nostalgia and forward thinking.
Muñiz says that “the Fifties represented a magic time, an era of optimism that we wanted to recreate here in Spain. The founders of Peggy Sue’s are all Spanish, but we’ve always been big admirers of American culture. At the same time, like it or not, the US continues to be the reference point for modern culture.”
Like L’Oncle Jack, most of Peggy Sue’s clientele are Spanish or Catalan, and the locations in Barcelona have been particularly successful because the city is filled with young people who are open to discovering new things. Their menu includes typical diner dishes such as chicken fingers, customisable burgers, tacos, milkshakes and onion rings.
Muñiz says that aside from bringing an atmosphere of hope and nostalgia to Barcelona and other cities around Spain, one of their other goals is to contribute to the local economy and improve the lives of the community. The company is deeply involved with los Mensajeros de Paz (the Messengers of Peace), an organisation that helps feed hungry children in the local community. “It’s our obligation. Even though we’re feeling the effects of the crisis just like anyone else these days, to work in the food industry while kids in your community go hungry and not do anything about it, just seems crazy.”
Speaking of food, it’s impossible to talk about the imported tastes of America without mentioning, well, Taste of America. It was the first grocery store to offer a complex variety of American food products in Spain. A group of Spanish and American friends founded the first location on Calle Serrano in Madrid, and expanded into other cities, such as Barcelona and Valencia, over the past decade and a half.
They sell products that are nearly impossible to find anywhere else in Barcelona, such as Arizona Iced Tea, Pepperidge Farm, Celestial Seasonings, Campbell’s Soup, Duncan Hines, Hershey’s, even Stubbs BBQ Sauce, straight from Austin, Texas. The labels are adapted to the market, written in both English and Castilian. Their purchasing team travels to the US to try new foods, in order to immerse their customers in American culture and cuisine, not just to offer them alternate buying options.
But what is the appeal for this kind of store in Barcelona? Co-founders Alicia Vaño and Dana Knowles admitted that they were surprised by the strong demand for these kinds of products outside the local American community. The Barcelona location has been open for four years, and is constantly growing its customer base. They say that well over half of their customers are not American, hardly any are tourists, and that they mostly get new business from word of mouth. “It’s not uncommon to overhear someone phoning a friend on the spot, to say ‘you have got to come check out this store!’” says Knowles.
She was born in Arkansas and has been living in Spain for 20 years. Her business partner is originally from Madrid but, comments Knowles, “has a deep love of American food and culture”. Like the people at Peggy Sue’s, they also see themselves as unofficial ambassadors of American food and culture. Besides filling the demand for US-produced snack foods, they also make it a priority to import the health-conscious side of the American diet.
“We have taken on that notion that the US produces only high-calorie junk foods,” says Knowles. “That’s a part of the American culture, but we also bring a wide variety of the newest trends in healthy eating, including organic, gluten-free and products appropriate for diabetics.” They offer in-store demonstrations to show people how to add variety to their everyday cooking using their products. The people at Taste of America have found that it’s something that many of their health-aware clients from the US miss from home, and that interests their Spanish clients as well. Or, to put it another way: “We want our customers to find inspiration in our shops,” explains Knowles. Whether that inspiration comes in the form of soft-baked chocolate chip cookies or probiotic yogurt, take your pick—they’ve probably got it in stock.
Before you get nervous about an American invasion, don’t worry—the sword cuts both ways, and it’s not all about Blues and BBQ. Organisations such as the American Society of Barcelona (ASB) are promoting a very real cultural exchange between Barcelona’s American community and natives of Catalunya. “Among other things, we work to promote the beauty of the Catalan landscape, food and culture to Americans,” says ASB president, Victor Horcasitas, “and connect Catalans with opportunities to learn about US culture, to practise English, and sometimes even with jobs in the United States. The mission of the ASB is not to Americanise Catalunya, but to promote connection and understanding between two cultures that have a lot to offer to each other.”
Founded in 1974 by a group of American entrepreneurs, the ASB was originally established for the purpose of connecting with other foreign businessmen within the local community. In the last few decades, the American Society has grown to include members from numerous countries.
“Things have changed in the US-Catalan relationship over the last several years. The US didn’t have a lot of friends here during the Bush era,” Horcasitas says. “When Obama came into office, Americans were strongly embraced by Catalunya. There was a great sense of possibility.” Horcasitas attributes the success of American-themed businesses, in part, to this feeling of hope. He says that it’s possible that the ASB’s work has helped to foster some of the appeal of businesses like L’Oncle Jack, Peggy Sue’s or Taste of America, but that it’s really a positive side effect and evidence of the deepening relationship between the two cultures.
So, in the end, what does Barcelona’s growing passion for American culture represent? US invasion or cultural exchange? Hope for the future, or a nostalgic longing for a real or imagined Golden Era of the past?
You decide. Can we talk about it over a milkshake at the diner?
L’Oncle Jack: Roselles 32, L’Hospitalet del Llobregat. Tel. 610 718 828. Metro: Av. de Carrillet (L1). Visit L'Oncle Jack's website.
Peggy Sue’s: Balmes 24. Tel. 93 304 2094; Travessera de Gràcia 35. Tel. 93 414 2520; Benet Mateu 57. Tel. 93 252 0890. Visit Peggy Sue's website.
Taste of America: Balmes 322. Tel. 93 211 9792. Visit Taste of America's website. FGC: Pàdua (L7)
The American Society of Barcelona: Sant Eusebi 3, 2-1. Tel. 93 368 4689. Metro: Fontana (L3). Visit Amersoc's website.